Sinshi nodded, slightly. That was what she'd thought Ayiwah could mean. The suggestion wasn't unwelcome, though she realized with a faint smile that her grandmother would hate it more than anything else she could do. That would, perhaps, be even worse than her granddaughter abandoning the Empire.
.:I will certainly consider it, ma'am. It would be a good compromise. I have time to think about it, we won't be leaving just yet.:. She bowed very slightly, as a show of respect. .:If I remain, Commodore, I hope that you will not take it as a personal offense. I have nothing but admiration for you and the things you have accomplished.:.
On 9/23/2019 at 1:52 PM, sunflower said:
"Well, mission accomplished," I supplied helpfully, holding out a hand to help Savina up, "One ash bear found, where too next then?"
“Back to angel hunting?” Savina asked as Tehlin helped her up. “Or...we could go fishing...if we find a lake.”
"Alright so, plan is angel hunting, but-!"
I raised a hand to punctuate the stop, tilting my head to look at Savina.
"If we happen on a lake, it's fishing," I added, with a somewhat over the top, knowing tone. "Hey Grecko, whadda think?"
IC [Ayiwah - Great Temple]:
:If having a mind of your own was cause for offense, I would have never graduated Menti training.:
:You certainly have the luxury of time to think this decision over thoroughly. Our work here is far from finished. Just be aware that regardless of whether you elect to remain or return, enlisting would make matters less complicated. The choice is yours. Let me know once you've made up your mind.:
There was a certain finality to the tone of Ayiwah's ideatalk. Not in an unfriendly way, but she had given the Menti all the information she could for her to make an informed decision. Now it was up to her to make it, and Sinshi knew the commodore would not bring the topic up again until she approached her.
IC: "Is your conversation over?"
He wasn't one of the aliens but the old monk was also no fool. Despite the lack of vocalization between the two "Toa," they were still showing much of the normal body language of two people engrossed in a fairly serious conversation. Physical motions, facial expressions, and body posture that just didn't happen outside of a discussion. Over his many centuries and many walks of life Hormd had grown accomplished enough to read signs as plain as these. The tone in his voice wasn't that of an annoyed bystander though. Rather it was was one mild reproach. Of a grandfather or old family friend reminding guests of social courtesies.
"In answer to your question, I am sorry to say that I have no idea what your companions have gone to do. Despite caring for his temple Mata Nui and his servants rarely let me in on their plans."
I had never been here before, which made me a distinct rarity among Joske's friends.
The stories of the man himself, the paragon of Mata Nui, the Toa of Light, I had obviously heard. The Joske I knew might have been able to light a birthday candle if he asked Tuara for help first, but a Toa of Light seemed beyond the pale. It was one of those things that would pass into island legend, one of those things I would never be able to ask about and never be able to see.
I would never see Joske again.
Cael, Angel, Agni, even Utu. Everyone had managed to find their way to the alleged spiritual center of Mata Nui, to the heart of Makuta's control over the island. That sounded like plenty enough reason for me to avoid it all my life - the defense of Kini-Nui against the last hordes of infected Rahi, Joske's incursions into the Vault, or either of the destined Toa Teams who had just waltzed down here to put an end to the island's woes. None of them had ever been a job fit for an assassin - they never found their ways into prophecies. Until they did, a voice in the back reminded me, conjuring an image of a list in Vakama's handwriting. I rolled my eyes, but the curious feeling stuck. Had the First Toa felt like this, marching towards their doom? Had the Maru? Probably not; it was hard to picture Stannis very concerned about anything. Stannis. Another friend I would never see again.
I wondered if he knew I would die, too, but the more I wondered about each of the lives I touched, each life that my fingers broke, twisted, or had failed to mend, I realized they had all known. Who was I, in a company of heroes, healers, and destined men? I was just a killer; I was just lucky; far from being under prophecy's heel, it turned out I had always just been hard to stomp out.
But there was nowhere left to run and nothing left to charm. All our roads led here in the end; I had finally come to Kini-Nui, trailing behind everything I loved, to join its throng of ghosts.
Before any job, a good assassin covers all his bases. Escape routes were any good assassin's biggest concern; capture meant questions, about yourself, your employers, your target, and generally ended with one link in that chain punching your clock before you spat out answers. Next came the gear check. As much as I would have loved to bring the sniper rifle, I had never been into the Vault. Like...it was a Vault, right? Small. Confined. A high-powered precision rifle, fired from the hip, would only wind up being reflected by Echelon to turn my brain into parfait, with the memories of my friends as the whipped cream on top.
Tuara used to go to the markets for dessert and do whip its for fun. She would always lie and say it would have melted before we were home. Sorority girl.
I had heard the rumors of weaponry in the Vault, more than the island's mercenaries and pentagram posse knew what to do with, so I started to leave more and more of the things I had brought behind. Knives would mean I had to be within point blank range of Echelon; if I was that close, I would rather just beat him to death. A knife was something he could slide between my ribs while I was distracted, so the knives were left in the bag There was Antidermis in the Vault, too, from Joske's descriptions; any explosion could crack open whatever Echelon contained his dark side go-go juice in, so as much as I would have loved to put the spindly freak through a living cremation, the oil-coated Madu went next. Chains were packed away. Throwing stars - what kind of meme-- were tossed over my shoulder. The small armory I'd carried to Kini-Nui eventually whittled itself down to two tools.
The Protosteel sword Angel had lent me glimmered in the dawn, a gift from Joske according to the Toa of Fire. It beats the ##### out of a broken heart, I thought, twisting the sword in the air and watching the runes drink greedily from the sunlight. Wished for a shield and gotten a sword, I'd joked in Ta-Koro, but when it came to Echelon's magnetism I was always going to be at a disadvantage. Giving one friend a sword and another a shield in the same gift was economical, forward-thinking, a clever interpretation. I didn't wanna give Joske the credit for it. So the sword went over my shoulder, which left just my revolver, first, last, and loneliest of my Echelon-slaying ensemble. The thing was a guaranteed bust against Echelon, and I spun it on my finger, making to toss it away into the bag at the end of the movement--
--and the gun kept spinning on, dutifully.
I had won it by right of conquest in the alleyways of Xa-Koro, slaying a Vortixx whose name I couldn't even remember. He had been some no-nothing traitor, a weakling who couldn't cut it in Xa-Koro, and I had cut my teeth as Brykon's cannon by dispatching him. Naryth. Yeaaaah, Naryth. The names always came to me in the end. At the time, I'd thought nothing of it. I'd never owned a gun, and it was fun to wave it around at the other Mark Bearers and see what they thought of it. All of them thought I was three seconds away from showing off my newfound skills at trepanation with a bullet as proxy, and most of them would have been right. But at the time, I'd treated it like a toy.
I haven't thought of most of them in so long. There was Tank. Yuru. Tillian. Reaver. Poor Emotia. Jikal. Salvinn. That shouty Matoran...Four? Twenty? Sixty-Nine? Nice.
The names had laid dead in my memory for years, but now they came flooding back. Echelon had ruined them all, but for me he got partial credit.
There was Nikki. She still hates when anyone else uses that name. And Utu. Utu Kotore. I kept on killing him, again and again, and still called myself his friend.
How many times had this gun threatened each of them, or killed in their names? Now that those names had breached the dam, the rest came -- Bad Company, my company. Marfoir and Sev Vossen with his terrible accent, taking the time to teach me marksmanship, maintenance, even petty tricks. Impressing Illicia and Jin with those same tricks, or holding up petty thugs side by side with Grokk's Zamor Launcher and trading jokes about compensation. Brykon's rolling eyes, his coarse knuckles on my cheek and harsh reprimands stinging my chest. The worthless bullets I'd fired at Heuani, and the smile on Tuara's face when she'd returned it to me in Ta-Koro.
Don't shoot anything's eye out.
The gun was Anthyn and Rhea Heartsflame, Angel and Kinvex, Vakama and Jaller. It was Brykon's sharp lessons and Agni's gruff advice, Merror's sage smile and Grokk bleeding in the street, Stannis' faith and Utu's death wish. Cael's backhanded barbs spun on my finger, and I felt her teeth scraping my lip when I pulled away from her kiss. This one dumb gun was Dorian's rage and Joske's death, all in the palm of my hand, enough to give anyone a headache. This gun was sitting in a plushie's hand in Ta-Koro, one of a pair. Its barrel was pointed at the other plushie's Guard badge.
In the eyes of my friends, I was this gun, hammer cocked and ready to fan without warning. My enemies would never be able to trust me not to empty it into them. I was too far gone for good and had strayed too far from wickedness. This one dumb toy, in perpetual motion, was my emblem. My Toa Tool. Me.
You were right, Cael. You apologized, but you didn't have to. I was always just a weapon.
And there was only one place left to aim myself. No point in not going in whole.
"Oh, babe," I purred, pressing my lips to the cylinder, "I could never leave you."
That was it, then. Escape routes crossed off, gear portioned out, and the target within reach. There was just me, with the things I needed to finally cleanse this island of its worst offenders, and the stuff that didn't make the cut leaning against one of the statues of the Kini. The stone was expertly carved, by hands more skilled than any Po-Matoran who had ever lived, and stood at about my height. It wore a Kakama.
"You'd better be rooting for me down there." I leaned in and kissed the stone, colder and crueler than Joske had ever been in life, on its cheek. "Everyone always rooted for you."
The statue made no indication that it had heard until long after Dorian Shaddix descended. It was Merror who found the message, hours later, carved into the stone with a careful hand and inimitable flair.
If you're my friend, too late. But thanks. And you're welcome.
If you're a Rahkshi, wrong number.
“In this place, our concept of eternity becomes only a second, our concept of invincibility becomes vulnerable, and our perception of infinity becomes miniscule. In this Nowhere, [one becomes] even less alive than death would make you. That impossible lack of existence… is simply indescribable.”
—Makuta Uhuraz, Aensettr Derrum, 2010
Nowhere trembles in anticipation.
I feel it.
—Do not call me that. I am not your brother.
Here, we are more brothers than we have been for a long time.
You confuse proximity with closeness. We have never been more proximate; yet I have never detested you more.
You do not hate me.
I do. I hate how you encroach on my essence. I hate what you are. I hate you.
—Do not call me that—
—I understand what this, the soonness, makes you feel.
I can. I know that you have grown uncomfortable Nowhere.
Uncomfortable! And you claim to understand me?
I have been here longer than you; I know how restless you become even in open space. Listen to me, brother.
Why should I listen to you?
You have no choice but to listen.
Nowhere is thinner than air. I could not escape the thought of you if I tried.
I have tried.
I want to discuss what you’re thinking about.
Nothing can hide Nowhere. I think your thoughts and see your plan as though they were mine.
In your eagerness, Brother, you have blinded yourself to a truth: your plan cannot work without my cooperation.
What do you want?
I want you to make a promise to me.
What good does a liar’s promise do you?
I believe you still answer to Truth, whether you like it or not.
Make me a promise.
I am listening.
Zaktan and the Antidermis had been locked in a staring contest for the past few hours or so… insofar as a vat of liquid-gas and a hovering swarm of Protodites could stare at each other.
A normal Skakdi might soak himself in hot water, gradually allowing his muscles to loosen; Zaktan, meanwhile, soaked himself in air, allowing his entire body to loosen. Maintaining the shape of a Skakdi for long periods of time could be exhausting for Zaktan; indeed, ever since his first run-in with Makuta’s potion, the Piraka’s leader had discovered that shapelessness—wherein he allowed his component particles to flit here and there at their leisure—felt far more comfortable and natural to him than holding a bipedal form. Many years after his transformation, Zaktan had come to embrace, rather than resent, his tendency to melt. Without others around, with only the enigma of the vat to keep him company, Zaktan happily resumed his truer form, and remained as a cloud.
But, when the clack-boom of the Abettor signaled another being’s arrival into the Vault, Zaktan’s lazy focus on the ever-changing patterns beneath the glass and spigots broke. The cloud of Protodites briefly tornadoed as each microbe resumed its normal place on his body; in a blink, Zaktan’s ever-flickering body returned to customary form. His glowing red eyes flitted up to the staircase, waiting to glimpse the feet that he heard plodding down the quartz tunnel over his head.
Echelon descended into view, looking worse for wear than Zaktan had ever seen him.
The Toa of Dark Magnetism’s black armor, usually gleaming—demonstrative of Echelon’s vanity, one of many reasons the Piraka’s leader had instantly disrespected him—shone duller in the Vault light, and beyond that, seemed to have lost its luster due to more impatient or minimal upkeep. Echelon’s priestly ebon robes were ripped and scuffed in a few places, Zaktan assumed, from hasty or dangerous travel; and they rested lower on his wiry form, as though the Toa had become still slimmer, or perhaps more stooped, since last Zaktan had seen him. The shoulders and neck of this Toa, Zaktan noted, were scrunched up with stress. Echelon’s Komau sat on a face even gaunter than usual. His Machiavellian eyes, eerie green as the Antidermis in the vat, looked exhausted, even nervous. He looks like a cornered animal, Zaktan concluded with satisfaction, but no smile. Cornered animals were the most dangerous beasts.
Only the crystal flamberge, sharp and clean as the day Joske had strutted down into the Vault wearing it on his hip, looked typically resplendent. Zaktan hadn’t seen the sword since he’d seen Joske; it came as only a slight surprise to him that Echelon now bore the Toa of Fire’s weapon. After all, Zaktan certainly hadn’t expected a hero like Joske to survive too long.
Echelon arrived at the bottom of the steps and paused. His green eyes swiveled up to Zaktan’s red ones. An instant of tense, silent contact, and then Echelon averted his gaze, opting instead to dig in his torn robes for something, pointedly ignoring Zaktan.
The silence and urgency with which Echelon rummaged seemed uncharacteristic of the grandiose Toa of Magnetism. Why, Zaktan wondered, did Echelon act this way? What caused the hasty movements, the defensive posture, or the feverish eyes? Betrayal in Ko-Koro, or perhaps fear of it? Pursuit by the Maru? Zaktan could safely assume that trouble of one kind or another nipped close at Echelon’s heels; and Zaktan wanted nothing to do with it.
The Piraka felt cold contempt, irritation, tingle familiarly in his forehead. Echelon’s presence was unexpected, and certainly unwelcome. The preening fool had no right to visit, let alone to trail his mud into, Zaktan’s immaculate citadel. Only Zaktan had belonged here, since only he could converse with the Antidermis enigma inside the gleaming, laughing vat. This was his private space, and no one else’s. The Insanity Voice was his, his alone.
If there was one thing that still tied Zaktan to the other Piraka, it was that he hated sharing.
“You are not welcome here, Echelon,” Zaktan buzzed coolly with his multitudinous voice. He clasped his hands behind him as he approached Echelon. The Dark Toa sensed his approach and tensed, ceasing his search with his hands clasped onto some objects in his cloak.
“I go where I wish, Zaktan,” Echelon replied, words clipped.
“Then, please, tell me why you’ve imposed yourself on my hospitality,” Zaktan hissed, a savage half-smile rising on his lean lips. Echelon gave no answer. “No? Not a very polite guest…”
Echelon resumed digging into the hidden pockets of his cloak. Zaktan took another step in, and Echelon halted once more, rolling his eyes.
“What do you have under that ridiculous cape?” Zaktan asked, hands still behind his back. In a corner of the Vault behind him, Zaktan’s tri-blade scissor flickered, eagerly awaiting its summons to its master’s waiting palm.
“Stop,” Echelon ordered.
“No,” Zaktan snarled, and dived at Echelon as his blade materialized into his hand.
But almost as soon as Zaktan lunged, he felt himself inexorably, nauseously repulsed. Every particle of his being shuddered simultaneously as though subjected to a shrill banshee’s scream— albeit, an inaudible one. Reflexively, the Skakdi’s body reverted to a shapeless, agitated mass, the better to flee from the source of the painful not-noise. Zaktan’s Protodites, and those of his sword, slammed like a wave on a rock against the wall of the Vault beneath the Antidermis vat. While the soundless screech echoed itself out of existence within his mind, Zaktan collected himself into shaky corporeality again, clutching his head as if he could claw the agonizing tone out of it.
Echelon smiled wanly under his Komau; his mental blast had been devastatingly effective against Zaktan. He resumed rummaging in his cloak, and his hand emerged at last holding a handful of small, crystalline spheres.
Zaktan recognized them, and knew something of their function. For, like the crystal flamberge, he had last seen these charms in Joske’s possession.
I finally spotted what I was looking for: a semi-circular spot on the floor, half-buried by the pile of technology… The section that I could see was actually composed of two circles, one slightly larger than the other, a large central disk. It was this series of rings I was looking for... the edges as thin as a sheet of paper, matching seamlessly with the floor... But now that I had pointed the rings out with my gaze, I noticed Zaktan's eyes narrow as he started to analyze this new piece of information.
I… made a leap of faith.
With a flick of my wrist, I pulled out the Crystal of Faith and gently chucked it in the direction of the rings. The sound of stone on stone caused everything else in the room to flinch slightly… Zaktan, too, was focused on the gem that now rolled across the floor… It lazily approached the apparatus, slowing, slowing, slowing yet moving... arcing, as if attracted to the circles. It came to a crawl, made one last roll in the other direction…
I held my breath as the little sphere landed inside a circle, the engraved letter right above it glowing…
It was a perfect fit.
The crystal dropped into a hole in the floor that had clearly not been there just a moment before, and a mysterious blue light source illuminated the pocket it now rested in. I could almost hear a hum, but it could just be my own blood rushing through my body…
Echelon held the six charms between his arachnoid fingers, luxuriantly fondling them as he took an assertive step into the middle of the Vault. A contemptuous glance at the hunched Zaktan; a pointed glance in the direction of the same spot where Joske had dropped the crystal that first time. Zaktan realized at once that Echelon knew exactly what he was looking for. The Dark Toa’s foot shoved and kicked aside various pieces of technology, uncovering the rings on the floor within seconds.
Why do Echelon and Joske want to activate the same device? Zaktan wondered.
“…What… does it do?” he asked, trying to keep his beehive voice level in spite of the residual effects of the mental blast.
“You didn’t really think you’d unlocked the treasure of the Vault, did you?” Echelon replied with a deposed king’s bitter leer as he extended his arm over the naked floor. “A pile of scrap metal, a dozen masks, and a few drops of Makuta’s precious essence? These are meager things. No, Zaktan. You should’ve listened to the rumors. In this vault is contained all the simplest power of the world.
“What does it do, you ask?” the Dark Toa continued, and there was a mad triumph flickering in his eyes. “What does a keyhole usually do?”
He let the six crystals fall through his fingers one by one. As each clacked onto the greenish quartz floor, they rolled of their own volition in different directions. Drawn as inexorably as if they were pulled by gravity, the charms headed towards particular letters on the ground, glyphs indistinguishable from their countless neighbors until met by the roving crystals, whereupon they recessed slightly and glowed blue. Before Zaktan’s eyes, the six charms—following a secret choreography—arranged themselves into a hexagon on the floor, describing the subtle outer ring of Joske’s device.
A low hum, seemingly sourceless, made Zaktan shudder like sand on top of a rattling snare drum. As if by magic, this outer ring rotated like a slowly turning lock. Simultaneously, a small rhomboid slit opened up in the middle of the central ring, blemishing the smooth quartz floor like a open wound.
Echelon—his eyes intent on the fresh slit, a horrible smile widening on his face—drew Heuani’s old sword.
Zaktan’s eyes widened with realization. That sword... is a key.
As Merror jogged through the forests surrounding Kini-Nui, he had to admit to himself that he wasn't as young and spry as he used to be.
He'd followed Dorian cautiously and from a distance as the younger Toa left Ta-Koro, knowing that he wouldn't brook company. Dorian had had a look about him as he slipped away from the Guard HQ that was all too familiar to Merror: the look of a man going to meet his fate alone. But the veteran Toa could not leave him to face the darkness without help — not least because of his own past failures to stop the Dark Toa that, according to Dorian's words in Ta-Koro, even now lay in wait in the Vault. Echelon would be more dangerous than ever, and it was Merror's responsibility to help put an end to him.
Perhaps even his destiny. He recalled once again that vision from Ko-Wahi: was his time drawing near, after all these years? Could this be it?
So Merror had to follow. There had been no time to rally the others; Dorian would soon have been gone without a trace. All he could do was try to keep track of the younger Toa on whatever journey he had chosen to undertake, and to be ready with sword in hand when the time came.
This had proven difficult. Dorian had not entered the Dark Walk as Merror expected him to: instead he had turned northward towards Ga-Wahi once outside the city gates, and the young Toa had quickly picked up the pace. Merror was no stranger to a cross-island trek, but he could not match the Fe-Toa's raw speed, and before long had lost sight of him and had to resort to his moderate tracking skills to keep up the pursuit. Crossing into Ga-Wahi he'd lost Dorian's trail entirely, and lost even more time doubling back searching for it. Eventually he had concluded that Dorian's general direction was towards Ga-Koro, and so set off for the Village of Water.
When at last he'd reached the Koro gates, he was able to pick up the Fe-Toa's trail again: a Marine had spotted him headed for the old waterfall trail that led to the Kini-Nui. That squared with Dorian's supposed mission to the Vault (though why he'd stopped by Ga-Koro first was a point on which Merror was uncertain) and so the veteran Ta-Toa had shaken out his aching muscles and set off along the trail with renewed confidence and as much vigour as he could muster.
That trail had led him over hill and dale until eventually he found himself here, among the green woods that blanketed the valley of the Kini-Nui, with the sun rising in the sky behind him.
Through the trees ahead, Merror could now glimpse sandstone spires, shining in the morning sunlight. Soon he came out into a circular clearing, at the heart of which was the Kini-Nui itself. Briefly, as he strode across the grass towards the temple, he reflected on the last time he had come to this place: it was in the months leading up to Makuta's fall, when the area was still rife with Infected Rahi and other perils, and as a result he'd had to help some other pilgrims fend off an attacking Muaka, only to have to flee an entire swarm of Rama. Now the Kini-Nui was a peaceful place, as it should be. Those scuffles with Rahi almost felt like a lifetime ago now, so much had happened since...
He reached the steps of the temple and turned his attention back to the task at hand: locating Dorian. The Suva Kaita was said to have been an entrance to Mangaia, but Merror could see no means of opening it; he vaguely recalled it having been said that the Maru sealed that entrance after their victory.
Somehow Merror doubted a little thing like a seal created by Mata Nui's six mightiest Toa could stop Dorian getting in somewhere he wanted to.
Out of the corner of his eye, Merror spotted something: a collection of objects that didn't belong, left in the shadow of a nearby statue. A quick investigation showed them to be gear he recognised as belonging to Dorian. So the young Fe-Toa had been here.
On the same statue, he noticed a small scrawl of writing carved into the stone. Anywhere else it would have been easy to ignore as some lover's memento or prankster's graffiti, but not here. Even Makuta cultists had never dared deface the Kini-Nui. Merror took a closer look.
If you're my friend, too late. But thanks. And you're welcome.
If you're a Rahkshi, wrong number.
Merror felt a pang in his chest as he read those words. Then defiance.
No. Not this time.
That's way too much #####ing metal.
Joske hadn't done the Abettor justice. I took a deep breath and shifted my weight from one foot to the other while I beheld it, and the hollow eyes of the Pakari in its chest cavity. It was squat and hunched, with clear pistons at the joints for movement. It looked like crude robotics work, but I could recognize its make from the complicated machinery Aurelia had used to send the Kumu Islets into the ocean. That had been recent, though, within the last few years - and, notably, the peak of technology on Mata Nui. Only what Ambages had done to Ko-Koro could compare, and those two lovebirds had all the money in the world to throw at R&D. When had Makuta put this Abettor here? Or, if what Joske had told me was even true, had he put it here at all?
I hated these kinds of secrets; they were meant for more curious minds. I gave up on the 'stay in the creepy house' mentality after I lost my Mark.
What the ##### am I supposed to do against that thing? Shoot it? I didn't bring a cannon!
Yeah, of course I did.
But I don't see how that could possibly work and anyway I didn't have time to waste bantering with this stupid robot--
"You know, I spent the best nights of my life with a girl who wore a Pakari," I greeted the Abettor amiably. A glow was my only immediate response; I blinked, blinded temporarily, and tilted my head back towards the darkness of the way I'd come. It was comfortable in comparison, even if it felt uneasily like being back in Heuani's grip. Once the morning sun and the songs of the birds had abandoned me, that same unsettling air was all I felt. Heuani's shade still lurked this tomb. Maybe his master's, too. I took a small gulp, banishing the memories, and continued on despite the glow. Dozens of runes adorned the Abettor's old armor, and all of them glowed with a familiar, sickly green. "You know how to use that thing?"
Oh, yeah, you #####ing smooth-brain. Tuara threw you through a roof with it, what do you think this thing will--
"Enough." The Abettor's voice had a robotic echo, bouncing along the interior of its empty armor. "We do not spend nights." Well, fine, #####. I didn't want you anyway. "We do not wear a Pakari." Before my eyes the masks in the center of the cavity began to cycle, mechanical clacking noises echoing through the empty tunnel that was the guardian's lot in life. It settled on a Kakama - my gut clenched - for a second before switching to another, more unfamiliar design I'd never seen before. Instantly my soul felt stripped down to its very essence. It was reading me like a book; most people didn't like what they saw past the title page.
"Identify...yourself," the guardian demanded.
"That name holds no meaning to us, Dorian Shaddix."
What the #####? I was a baby, I didn't choose it.
"Why are you here," the guardian asked, making the inquiry a statement. Interview time.
"I need to kill someone."
"A strange addiction for a Toa," the Abettor mused to itself, gears turning inside its shell. I wondered which represented its thought process. "Yet one common to those who seek us. Like them, you are not worthy. Leave."
"The person I need to kill is inside the Vault right now."
"Then kill him when he departs," the Abettor demanded; demanded, the stupid #####ing thing, even though its tone had barely changed. The Kakama slowly whirred back to the forefront, and the letter on its forehead glowed. "You are not worthy, Dorian Shaddix. You are not wanted, Dorian Shaddix. Leave."
"For the love of--I don't want to open your stupid #####ing Vault!" There was a long moment of pause, though I didn't know if a thing like this would have called it hesitation. Computation maybe.
"Then you do not lack for as much sense as you appear, and should have no problem leaving," the Abettor replied. A clacking sound accompanied it, like some of the gears inside were laughing at me. That seemed like progress (if I could make Agni laugh, I could sure as ##### definitely make a robot laugh) but then the Abettor raised its arm. Or, more accurately, the blue crystal where a real boy's arm would have been. The Kakama's eyes were as wide and sightless as Joske's, dead in the snow. Heuani's shadows danced in their slits. Pistons whirred and the Abettor hunched forth, faster than I would have thought. Did I have enough juice to stop it in its tracks? Maybe. But they were long odds, and I needed all my strength for Echelon. "Leave, Dorian Shaddix. We will not instruct again."
"The Vault is already opening!"
This time, hesitation really did hang in the air.
"Lies," whirred the Abettor defensively. Someone getting in and opening the Vault would have meant its failure as a guardian, and it wasn't about to brook that from a Toa that was stupid enough to hit on it. "None are worthy."
"Not even Echelon?"
"The worthiness of others should not be your concern. Leave, or die."
"But you just said you wouldn't tell me again. And you said none were worthy. Echelon is inside."
Another, longer moment of hesitation, before the Kanohi switched back to the unfamiliar shape I'd never seen before. I took that as reason enough to keep talking.
"Whatever is in there, Echelon is going to let it out," I said urgently, taking a step forward. The Abettor rose on its haunches out of instinct, but did not attack, so I pressed forward another step. "He has the key, and he has the crystals. I watched him take them myself. He is inside right now using them, and I'm offering to stop him for you. And you're arguing. What the ##### is your major malfunction, big guy?"
Silence from the machine.
"Me being worthy, not worthy, it doesn't matter when I don't care about opening it. I just want to kill the person who's inside. The unworthy person inside. If you think you can handle that, go ahead. I could be sipping Bula juice on the beach right now if you turned around and did my job for me. If not, let me enter."
Silence, apart from the occasional clacking and whirring. The foreign Kanohi finally shifted, cycling through several masks before landing on an Arthron.
"You may enter," the Abettor said simply.
Nowhere, the fabric of nothing rips—
—and I feel it.
I feel it, too—
—So soon. I can almost—
—Yes. So can I—
What is it?
Stop agreeing with me.
We are having the same experience. I sense what you sense; so, I cannot help but agree with you.
I am sorry to be so agreeable.
I hate you.
I will make you your promise, if you still insist upon it.
I do. I am glad.
Your gladness is folly: you believe my promise has worth. It does not. No power binds me to honor my word.
I know you will not break a brotherly vow, even though you have that power.
Why are you so confident?
Am I not transparent Nowhere? You need not ask.
Your smugness agitates me.
I am never smug.
Are you not transparent Nowhere? You are smug.
Perhaps, a little.
Is it so wrong to derive satisfaction from a brother’s word?
It is as you say: so close.
The breach begins.
We do not have much longer.
Make the promise. This is the time.
I hate you.
No; you just hate being outmaneuvered.
I will keep my word.
“Don’t!” cried Zaktan.
Perhaps it was Zaktan’s raised voice that caught Echelon’s attention and stopped the sword’s motion. Zaktan never yelled. Even fools knew a shout betrayed emotion; and Zaktan, not a fool, preferred to keep his emotions to himself. But under these circumstances, the usually stoic Piraka felt in his gut that he had no other choice but to…
What, to cry forth? Zaktan thought in the instant after his ejaculation. To plead?
Zaktan did not completely understand why he so opposed Echelon inserting Joske’s old sword into that slot on the floor. At least, he didn’t understand with his head. Rather, his gut jumped to a conclusion; and loathe though Zaktan was to follow instinct over intellect, this sensation felt irresistible and utterly urgent. It felt to Zaktan as if the countless particles which constituted his body had been synchronized with some high, clear note struck on the flamberge’s rippling blade. The silent reverberation felt, to him, like the eerie sound of a wet finger being drawn along the lip of a wine glass.
Zaktan understood the vibration as fear. He felt a mortal fear, the kind of fear a cursed near-immortal almost forgets. For the first time since Zaktan’s rebirth as a million swirling organisms, he had awareness, somehow, that he was in danger. All at once, nothing felt more crucial to Zaktan’s survival than stopping Echelon from inserting that crystal blade into its notch.
Echelon’s gaunt face twisted into a mask of self-satisfied scorn. “Are you afraid?”
“Yes,” Zaktan admitted with surprising ease. “And you should be t—”
His words were cut off by Echelon’s bark of a laugh. “The fearsome leader of the Piraka, cowering from the power of the very Vault he has made his lair? Please; I think little of you, Zaktan, but not this little.”
Zaktan was incensed and terrified at once. “You-must-listen-to-me!” the Piraka snarled desperately, picking himself up, rising to rush Echelon again. Another mental blast from Echelon’s Komau reduced Zaktan to a shivering cloud. Zaktan regained his form as Echelon approached him, taking steps away from the slit on the floor. This, at least, was good news to Zaktan.
“You take me for a fool,” Echelon mused.
“Yes,” Zaktan growled, his multitude-body still aching from its second rebuffing. “I do.”
“You think I would be taken in by this little theatre act?” Echelon asked, scorn etching itself deeper into his forehead. “You, whimpering and afraid? Ha. You disappoint m—”
“—I’m not lying.” Zaktan interrupted.
“I think you are,” Echelon countered. “I think you know enough about this device to guess at its purpose, to think you could supplant me in its activation. I’ve seen the way you look at that tank of yours.“ Echelon stabbed a finger in the direction of the roiling vat of Antidermis. “I know we are rival servants of the same master. You would take my place? I will not allow you nor anyone else to stand in my way — not here, at the culmination of my life’s work!”
The Dark Toa’s mocking tones had risen into a wild-eyed rant.
“Listen to yourself, Echelon,” Zaktan hissed. “Or, better, listen to me. You must not activate Joske’s device.”
“Joske’s device?” Echelon crowed, almost hysterically. “I retract my earlier theory! You know nothing about this Vault, do you?”
“I know more about its source than you do,” Zaktan howled. “And I know that you don’t understand what you’re getting into! You’re a fool, Echelon! You must cease!”
Echelon grimaced and stabbed the crystal flamberge at Zaktan. Zaktan let the sword slip right through him, the Protodites of his body separating to let its blade pass unencumbered. Echelon sliced from side to side, and the famous sword met no resistance. With a snarl, he spun away from Zaktan and strode back to the hexagon of charms on the floor, intent on resuming the Vault’s keyhole ritual.
A sound from over Zaktan and Echelons’ heads stopped the Dark Toa cold once more. It was the same patter of footsteps and clang of the Abettor’s voice that Zaktan had heard earlier, that same sequence which had announced Echelon’s arrival a few minutes earlier.
Someone else was entering into the Vault uninvited. Echelon glanced away for a moment, concentrated on the sound, stood frozen— but Zaktan wasted no time in making his move.
Before Echelon had a chance to swivel, use a mental assault, anything, Zaktan had deformed into a dust-colored cloud of protodites. With the force of a sandstorm, Zaktan lunged forward, the particles of his being buffeting the Dark Toa, knocking Echelon to earth and seizing the crystal key-sword from his grip.
Echelon cursed, and his Komau’s devastating mental blast spread radially around the room. The cloud that was Zaktan—which had been swooping for the exit—shrieked in pain, lost cogency for an instant, spun off-course and ran into the wall. In that instant of disembodiment, the flamberge fell from Zaktan’s gaseous grip, twirling a few feet through the air and falling into the center of the junk heap that still towered against one side of the Vault.
Zaktan momentarily considered darting back after the sword. He could perhaps have continued to deprive Echelon of the flamberge; that would certainly have been the best course of action to stop the Dark Toa from unleashing the Vault’s horrid power on the world at large. But such a solution could only have been temporarily and, more importantly, would’ve cut short Zaktan’s escape. Zaktan, fundamentally a self-interested being, had seen enough to realize that escape was his only option. Having now sustained three debilitating Komau blasts, the Piraka found himself nearly spent. Given Zaktan’s particular condition, Echelon was simply insurmountable.
Besides—just maybe—if Zaktan stayed far enough away from it, the Insanity Voice waiting to be unleashed in the Vault might not catch him. Might not rob him of his very self.
Fast as he could, eager to avoid another shock from Echelon’s Komau, the Piraka’s leader zipped up and out. He passed through the hole in the ceiling, rose into the entry tunnel, and swerved over the shoulder of the Abettor. As Zaktan did so, he caught a passing glimpse of a new Toa entering the Vault. This Toa carried violent intent in his squared shoulders, fierce stride, and set face. Zaktan hoped that the newcomer might finish Echelon off, but thought a delay of the inevitable a much more likely outcome.
Zaktan’s cloud barrelled through the dark, winding tunnels of Mangaia. It blasted out the aperture of Kini Nui and rocketed into the early evening sky. It hung in space for an instant, considering the best route of escape. Then, like a swarm of silent locusts, it plunged into the jungle and was seen no more.
IC [Ayiwah - Great Temple]:
"It would appear your spirit is as forthcoming with straightforward answers as ours is with hers." the Commodore said. Her eyes briefly darted up towards the sky at the sudden sound of faint buzzing. A large swarm of insects could be barely made out against the night sky, disappearing over the forest somewhere. Odd.
She turned to look at the elder. "We will simply have to content ourselves with waiting for their return."
You just hate to see your evil dads fight.
Well, evil dad and...evil dad’s apparent brain fart. When the Abettor’s eyes finally changed color and the ringing iron tones of its mockery had given way to the clacks of its archaic joints, it became obvious that I’d interrupted something of cosmic importance. The current Vice President of the (In?)Voluntarily Celibate Association of Mad Scientists was trying to swat at the acid-tinged cloud buzzing around its head - buzzing, literally, the low hum of cicadas and flies and all manner of pestilence, that rung in the ears and the spine. It was clearly bothering Echelon, too, but Echelon seemed to prove more than equal as an irritant.
I could sympathize with the fart cloud, honestly.
Then it beelined at me.
I swiveled, turning ninety degrees and ducking to the side, closer to the rock face - or what I thought was rock face; the place redefined dim lighting - but the vermillion swarm had no interest in me. It flew past the Abettor and was gone, leaving an incensed-looking Echelon. It had abandoned something familiar in a pile of discarded junk, Kanohi, and empty projectiles. Whatever Rahkshi Echelon was charging to sweep this place did about as well with their chores as I did growing up. They could have at least bothered to put a bed over the pile. .
Without letting Echelon know I clocked it, I plopped down on top of the pile of junk - and my weight shifted on top of a Patero Launcher, some gizmo pulling another gizmo’s trigger and sending a blast of pressurized air out of the barrel. The projectile began bouncing around like a pinball, off the walls, ground, and ceiling towards the Abettor, where the barrel had been pointing. It was making a racket. Good. I wanted Echelon to have a headache. It made most people sloppier - and even if he won here, it would still be kind of worth it knowing he would never get to enjoy the moment of victory.
“So,” I called out, shifting my weight on top of the sword and raising my voice to be heard over the bouncing Patero. Echelon loved hearing me talk. “What’s with him-it-that-thing?”
Echelon glared at Dorian with the look of a man suffering the worst migraine the young Toa could’ve hoped for.
For now, even the flamberge had lost Echelon’s attention as he fixed his withering stare on the latest specimen fate had sent to test his strength and his patience. A swarm of tiresome insects, it seemed, had been replaced by a single man-sized one.
“Stop me if you’ve heard this before, Dorian Shaddix,” the Dark Toa growled, cold sarcasm failing to mask frustration-bordering-on-rage, “but you are the very last thing I n--”
Beneath the Komau’s forehead, a vein throbbed.
Echelon’s eyes flicked back to the flamberge, lying atop a pile of worthless treasures where Zaktan had dropped it, focusing his mind on the task ahead instead of the infernal Fe-Toa. The sword lay roughly equidistant to the two Toa — a little closer to Echelon, perhaps, but the youth had a Calix. If he could keep Shaddix talking (usually neither a difficult nor a desirable thing to do) it might buy him time to analyse the situation and formulate a plan of attack.
It occurred to him that Shaddix had most likely had the same idea.
“So. What is it, then? Revenge?” Echelon asked, trying for a jab at an emotional weak spot. “For gutting your poor, dear friend? Or have you actually got it into your head you’re doing something noble?”
A long, drawn out, bored sigh. For the first time, I realized I’d probably anticipated most of his taunts on the way here. By now, they only hurt coming from my friends. You’re irresponsible, Dor. You never do anything right, Dor. You screwed things up worse by trying to help, Dor. Being heckled by bad guys was so...so…
“Yeah,” I replied, pulling out a cigarette, “but come on. Man. Have you been outside lately? Everyone wants you dead.”
I started fiddling with Joske’s lighter around my neck, trying to get the beaten silver construct to light up my smoke. I took a brief drag. Bleh. Ta-Koro stuff, with little filter and a terrible taste. I crushed it, lit end against a Protosteel phalange, and flicked it right onto one of the charms in the floor. I don’t think he liked that.
“You know what your problem is? You need friends. Do you want to be friends?”
“Don’t make me laugh.”
“C’moooon. You wanna open the Vault. I don't wanna open the Vault but I'm curious. We’ll each put a hand on the key and, what, turn it together? See what’s inside? Maybe do a little pinky cuddle and pretend like it never happened?”
As he brushed aside the taunts, a flicker of curiosity crossed Echelon’s mind.
Just how much does he know? How much did Nimil tell his friends?
“So you are here for the Vault. Which means you realise that it has not yet been opened, and that the flamberge is the key. Joske had enough life in him for some final words, then.”
Well, that made sense. My apartment key kinda looked like a sword, come to think of it.
“Lotta gargling, mostly. But we had a gameplan. Do you have his mask, by the way? We’re putting it in the Hall of Heroes. I might leave room for your head if you ask nicely.”
Wrapped as they were in nonchalance and bravado, the significance of Dorian’s words was unmissable to Echelon. Years prior, Echelon had watched from a distance as his own (albeit illusory) head was lopped off by the Fe-Toa, with Heuani himself looking on approvingly. It was a reminder not only of the failure of one of his more ambitious experiments, but also of how casually Makuta’s erstwhile lieutenants would’ve disposed of him. And, Echelon realised, it signalled Dorian’s intentions. Only one of them would leave the Vault alive.
So be it.
“You know, you’re a lot calmer than usual, Ech. I came down here expecting to die, but you - you’re taking certain death in stride. Good for you.”
Echelon’s temper flared.
“Oh, but you are so. very. wrong. Shaddix.”
The Dark Toa’s snarl laid bare the tension on his shoulders, the rage of a man straining to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. And finding a fast-talking assassin standing between him and his salvation.
“Because I have done what no other could. I have forged the dregs of Makuta’s empire into an army strong enough to take one of your precious villages. I have killed the champion of Mata Nui and turned his grand ‘destiny’ to my own purpose. And now, Dorian Shaddix, I will open the Vault of Mangaia and claim what is rightfully mine!”
Echelon was ranting again; railing not just at the young man in front of him — in fact, not really at him at all, but at the world itself. Dorian had simply become a focal point for his hatred of a world whose ultimate, harsh reality he could not accept.
Echelon did not want to die.
Since even before he found his Toa Stone, this deepest of denials had gnawed at him. It was not just a visceral fear: it was an intellectual one too. How could his mind simply...cease? Or at best (and likely wishful thinking, peddled by liars and simpletons), pass on from this world, he knew not where. How could one make peace with this? He could not. He would not. He was blessed with a brilliant mind. He would find a way. An escape. At any cost.
For all his long life, Echelon had studied, searched, experimented in pursuit of this obsession, shedding what few scruples he might once have carried as he went, replacing them with cold logic rooted in monomania. He honed his mind and powers, and at the same time began to resent, then to hate his physical form. Why should a mind like his be shackled to a body, a fleshy prison, condemned to fail and drag him down with it? This, too, he must escape.
It had taken him so long, but eventually he had realised the only solution to his obsession. His experiments could only delay the inevitable: the freedom he sought, from body, from death, could not be attained. It could only be given. And there was only one with the power to give it.
And Echelon would bring him back.
“Death, Shaddix?” Echelon raved. “You think you know death?! I survived the Marks. I survived Heuani. I survived Makuta’s fall, and every trial I have faced since! I have been cheating death since long before you were a glint in some Xa-Koro harlot’s eye, because I have the will to survive, by any means and at any cost! That is why I will be the one to open the Vault — not for riches, fame or power, but for survival — and I have not come THIS FAR, TO DIE NOW!”
Echelon lunged for the crystal sword.
The Patero Launcher swiveled and took Echelon once, square in the chest. It was a lazy riposte to a blind lunge. At first, I’d been interested in Echelon blah blah blahing on about all the things he’d survived - yeah, dude, I was there - but eventually I became truly fascinated. I’ve had sex with a few cautionary tales before, but I don’t think I’ve ever killed one - and in the span of about a minute, Echelon had morphed into one before my eyes. The look of deliberate boredom I’d adopted while fishing for another, better cigarette had grown still, and the unlit smoke was still held aloft between pursed lips. I struck it lit and took a longer, more careful drag.
“Then turn around and run, you idiot.”
I puffed the smoke towards where Echelon had landed on his back, struggling to stand again. I sat on my perch, with the flamberge, my bag, and a lot of other miscellaneous weaponry behind and below me. He looked at me as though he was incapable of seeing me clearly - and for the first time I really felt like I saw him.
“Where do you think we are right now?” I asked softly. “Were you even listening to me? I didn’t run into any army on the way here. There’s nothing racing here to come bail you out of this. There’s nothing that could save you from me on its best day - and even if there was, you betrayed it a long time ago. All this time chasing Joske, chasing a sword, chasing snow globes from old temples..and in the end you outran anything loyal to you and wound up here alone. A guy who made his bones killing a Gukko tamer. What have you done since? For anyone?”
“I SEIZED--” Echelon spluttered, still winded by the projectile.
“Ko-Koro, yeah, yeah. You weren’t listening to me. You took Ko-Koro with, what? Those Skakdi that torched the Lavapool? Left some goat’s blood on a Suva? Woo-hoooo, man. Some necromancers, too, if the rumors coming out of Ko-Koro are anything to go by. And what did you do? Let the necromancers freeze to death, drove the Piraka away on their own if that little beehive on the way out was any indication. Nobody likes you, man. Toa need teams. Mercenaries need companies. Makuta needed followers...but here you are, all alone in a Vault with one way out. And Ko-Koro? When is the last time you went outside? I was in Ga-Koro last night. You know how many armies have sent forces out to Ko-Wahi by now? You grouped every last follower of Makuta left into one big cage, and maybe any merc without the stones to stand against you. How long do you think the mercs hold out before they figure there’s more profit in switching sides? What’s left after them? A few dozen priests and savages? I’d kill for those necromancers back, you’ll need them when the corpses start falling. The Maru will roll in, the Guards will roll in, and when all’s said and done, there won’t be anyone left to even light a candle to this place for five thousand years. You’re right, big man. You did something nobody else has ever done. You set Makuta all the way back to square one.”
For a second, I thought I saw doubt in Echelon’s eyes. I rolled mine at him.
“If you were God, how would you feel when all your worshippers died? How would you feel that they were abandoned when your high priest buried them alive in the snow with the infidels? Would you reward him with something? I wouldn’t want you to live forever. I wouldn’t want you to stick around and things up for one more day than you already have,” I dragged, blowing another contemplative smoke into the air between us. “But hey, I’m no god. I’m just a mercenary. Just a poopbutt kid who’s survived you again, and again, and again, which probably means I’m the best expert on long odds you’ll ever run into. But you didn’t listen to me. Didn’t listen to Joske, who tried to warn you what the alternative was. Instead you killed him, and made sure that the next person after you wouldn’t follow a Toa Code. Good plan.”
Patero Launchers began to rise from the junk pile like marionettes, and other weapons too - Zamor Launchers, disk launchers, and projectile weapons that looked way too foreign for me to point them at random. Instead I pointed them at Echelon. A sword, adorned with runes more ancient than either of us and such a lustrous Protosteel that it shone almost silver, lay on my lap.
“Listen now, Echelon. You’ve got a funny way of settling things for someone who wants to live...but I do, too. So go. Leave. Leave the crystals, leave the sword, leave the Antidermis, and go to ground, Echelon. You killed Joske, and I should rip you into chunks for that, but just this once, I’ll try what he would have tried. There’s no saving your followers or your power. When the blood stops raining in Ko-Koro, you’ll get what you wanted - you’ll be the last freak left. You’ll never be able to show your face again, you’ll never get to rule the island, strike fear in kids, and your name will eventually die - but you’ll live. It’s a rough way to live, but it still beats whatever Makuta does to ups like you. Once I put the bullet in your head, anyway.”
Echelon was silent for a time after the Fe-Toa finished his ultimatum, his face unreadable.
Then he laughed, a scornful, spiteful laugh that made it very clear Dorian had been wasting his breath.
“Listen to yourself, Shaddix,” he said, his thin mouth twisted into a grimacing smile of hatred and derision. “Oh, so noble! Doing what Joske would do, what that fool Merror would do! You really do think you’ve changed. Or you want to think so.”
As he spoke, Echelon began to subtly seed the hovering panoply of weapons with Dark Magnetism. Not enough to disrupt Dorian’s control over them, or for the visible effects to catch his eye, but enough that the Dark Toa would be ready when he made his move. Telekinesis was Echelon’s game, and Dorian would regret challenging him at it.
“But I know you, Shaddix. The Mark showed me what you are: not the charming rogue you so like to play, or the troubled hero you clearly want to be for the sake of Joske and his insipid friends. No, Shaddix: you’re a killer. A murderer. You don’t kill for something greater; you don’t even kill for money. You kill because you like it.
“You can pretend you’ve changed all you like, Shaddix, but deep down, you know you haven’t. You know you can’t. Do you really think those friends of yours don’t know that too? They may pity you, but whether you die down here or saunter out with my skull under your arm: they will never accept you.”
“Snrk. Well, it wouldn’t be your skull, moron. Not for a few days, anyway, you’ve gotta decompose first and then there’s--you know what, forget it. You don’t seem like much of a scientist. If you were you’d know to be careful with exploding tattoos.”
I had to work to bite back a smile. Bombs and swords could beat up Dors, but roasts could never cook me - and I had seen schemes blow up in Echelon’s face with more intensity than his insults had. This was just like him, honestly. Heuani had been slick, cajoling, subtle with his machinations. The Four Peers had been the same way, a few schemers who wore Matoran’s faces to disguise the monstrosities committed in their names. Echelon had always been the same blunt instrument - in the end, he couldn’t help himself. I never could, either. Maybe that was why I was picked for a Mark all those years ago.
“Anyway. That was your one chance to leave peacefully. So if you want to kill me,” I shrugged, lolling my head to the side at him, “now’s your one chance to finish me off. Enjoy it. Because when I get up - and I will get up, you lanky ##### - I’m going to make sure what’s left of you couldn’t even be poured into that lock, Etch-a-Sketch.”
“We shall see.”
Each of the floating weapons erupted with flares of shadow as Echelon made his move, launching a concerted challenge to Dorian’s elemental control over the Piraka arsenal. For a split second they swivelled in unison, their aim moving away from Echelon, towards Dorian — then Dorian reacted, fighting back, and the weapons shuddered, each one jerking this way and that as the two Toa struggled not only to exert their will over so many objects simultaneously, but to overpower their opponent’s.
A Zamor launcher went off, propelling a sphere of amber liquid into a wall of the Vault to explode with a flash of light and a crack like thunder. A high-tech rifle bent under the competing forces, then snapped into two halves that flung themselves in opposite directions, scattering crystalline ammunition across the floor.
The deadlock lasted mere seconds before Echelon broke it: he relinquished his control over one Patero launcher (low-powered enough, he had quickly judged, not to pose a significant threat if Dorian managed to point it at him before his gambit paid off) and in its stead, focused that portion of his energy and concentration on a bayonet that lay behind the Toa of Iron, sending it stabbing towards Dorian’s back.
It was an esoteric technique, and one that still hadn’t picked up much steam among most Toa on the island. A lot of Toa were born with elements that the body and mind weren’t suited to reach for, things consciousness could not touch. But some, like fire, water, or earth, were handy for those who had the patience, and a Toa of Iron could do all that and more with the metals that comprised the world around him. I hadn’t been too hot as a student - but I’d had a very hot teacher, something that had kept my attention long enough for me to pick up the much-needed patience that kept me alive as Brykon’s right hand. Brykon. That cruel old man, with his beatings and dismemberments, his old voice rubbed raw by his bellowed orders and his fine cigars. I had beaten him half to death once, and him me more than once...but he had been my colonel, and half my expertise had come from his gruff advice. Sometimes I even heard him in the way Agni spoke, wizened beyond their true ages by long years of competency among the incompetent.
I had kept each and every one of the lessons, though - and a small but healthy sampling of the paranoia. So when Echelon released the Patero Launcher we had been struggling over, I felt the familiar elemental tug of war give way and knew something else was up his sleeve. I had all angles of attack covered save one glaring blind spot -- so the Patero Launcher spun around and fired another blast behind my back, sending a compressed air pocket to blow the bayonet harmlessly off course. It was only one of a dozen weapons that had clattered to the ground, an avalanche cascading from the untidy mountain and turning into a second messy heap. While I finally got up and moved off my perch, a few of those - be they projectile weapons or blades - flew at Echelon and were deflected harmlessly, as I figured they would be. It didn’t matter; they’d given me time to stop lazing around and pounce onto my feet.
“Do you ever get bored of this? Again and again, the same old song and dance? You always gloat, I always flip. You always live, and so do I. We could just quit.”
“I assure you, Shaddix, few things bore me more than grappling with the likes of you,” Echelon retorted, as he managed to wrest control of a foreign-looking crossbow only for Dorian to deflect the bolt with his own powers. “But I will not be kept from my work. If you wish to quit — be my guest.”
Another Zamor launcher was triggered before either Toa could seize full control of it, sending a blue-green sphere to explode in a cloud of gas against the Vault wall.
“Or you can stay, and die. It really doesn’t make much difference to me. The latter option simply demands a little more EFFORT — “
The Dark Toa abruptly relinquished his magnetic influence over the hovering weapons, and immediately channelled his full focus into a mental blast from the Komau. Dorian reeled back from the pain inside his skull and the weapons, released from the elemental tug-of-war, tumbled down to join the rest of the pile. Echelon strode forward and seized the flamberge from where it lay, levelling it at the reeling Fe-Toa.
“ — on my part.”
“Yeah, I’d be careful with exerting yourself. Must be hard on your lungs,” I responded sympathetically, “you know. After that Mark blew up.”
A Patero swiveled from the ground and shot Echelon’s legs out from under him with a blast of compressurized air. I took the opportunity to push myself back up onto my feet and grabbed a disk at random from the top of the pile. I thought it was bamboo, and only realized as I flung it that it was an unfamiliar alabaster instead of worn wood.
The Vault wall behind Echelon shone where the disk struck true, and a thick sheet of ice began snaking across its service.
That’s so #####ing cool.
Echelon’s attention too was momentarily caught by the unusual effect.
His gaze snapped back to Dorian. Twice now Shaddix had managed to knock him to the ground; he would not be allowed a third. The Dark Toa’s armour began to flicker with shadow as he rose into the air, hovering half a Toa’s height off the ground. Levitation was an additional drain on his energies, but a worthwhile one: he would be more mobile, and have a more comprehensive view of the battleground.
He spotted another of the exotic disks lying nearby, engraved with unfamiliar symbols, and exerted his power to send it spinning towards the Fe-Toa — who leaped aside, and the disk instead struck a foreign rifle on the floor behind him.
The gun glowed purple, emitting a strange humming sound that increased rapidly in pitch — as the weapon itself grew until it was the size of a cannon.
Both Toa stared, the rhythm of their duel broken by the sheer novelty of these bizarre artefacts.
“Cool,” I repeated, thin grin slowly stretching across my face. The cavalier word broke the stalemate; any order that Makuta had kept his trophies in had been undone by the occupations of Echelon and the Piraka, so there was a brief precious few seconds of scrambling through the unfamiliar disks trying to figure out what disk did what. Echelon had the power to fling them at me faster than I could at him, but I was younger than the Dark Toa, more athletic, and wore a Calix; my throws were cleaner and more accurate. The rifle behind me that had grown so huge shrank down again, down to the size of a large fruit; the Patero Launcher that had blasted Echelon to the ground twice was struck by a disk and vanished. It didn’t reappear.
In the chaos, I felt the familiar prickle on the back of my neck that hinted at Echelon’s trump card - he was ready to use his element. Time to see what you’re good for, Angel Face.
Echelon’s Dark Magnetism pulsed towards me and struck the sword. It went no further, holding its tenuous position long enough to ripple in the air in front of me before vanishing. On the side of the sword facing me, an ancient rune shone, in the sickly green of Antidermis.
That was the easy part.
I swung a test blow towards Echelon’s left side - dangerous enough to slice through the armor on a regular Toa’s side, but easily parriable for the wielder of that flamberge.
Echelon had dropped back to the ground to channel more power into his attack; a look of bemusement flashed across his face as it was absorbed — something new was at work — before he had to react to Dorian’s swing. He brought the flamberge up easily (more easily, in fact, than should have been possible; it was as though the blade moved his arm, rather than the converse) to block the runed sword.
Crystal and Protosteel made contact.
A wave of force, equal and opposite to the one Echelon had fired at Dorian, slammed into the Dark Toa and sent him hurtling across the Vault. He hit the wall hard and fell with a crash into the pile of tech.
Stunned, and breathing past what felt like broken ribs, Echelon’s could think only one thing.
That was Dark Magnetism. My Dark Magnetism.
His own element — unique, to the best of his knowledge, thanks to the Antidermis’ alteration — had been used against him. How was that possible?
He heaved himself up on one arm, the other still (somehow) gripping the flamberge. His vision came back into focus, honing in on the advancing Dorian — then on the weapon in his hands. Was it the sword? Was Shaddix’s new toy more than it appeared? A sword with the power to turn Echelon’s greatest weapon against him?
As much as he loathed to admit it, Echelon could not take that chance. It was time to switch tactics. His element was, for now at least, off the table: that left his mask and the flamberge. Regathering his will, he stopped Dorian in his tracks with another mental blast, buying time to rise back to his feet and raise the crystal blade.
He found it settling comfortably into a parrying stance — one he had never used, and yet felt perfectly natural. The Dark Toa had, all his life, made a point of shunning physical training in favour of the mind, and yet somehow his muscles seemed to know the exact form to which this singular weapon was suited.
And there was something familiar about the stance he found himself in. As though he had seen someone use it before....
Perhaps Shaddix was not the only one whose blade possessed more subtleties than met the eye.
Blades clashed up and down the length of the Vault; I knew I had him.
Echelon had never had the makings of a varsity athlete. In all our confrontations over the years, he had honed his mind and his element, but with a sword in his hands I had always suspected he was never more than average. The only thing that was keeping him alive now was the fact that he had an above-average weapon. Even that wasn’t the advantage that Echelon might have thought it was. I’d been on either end of the sword - the edge, the quickness, the perfectly balanced weight each lent it potent value as a weapon. Each was also, notably, contoured for its user, turning even a novice into an equally potent duelist. That leap in prowess was an equation in which only one side was balanced; it fell to the user to be balanced. I had seen it with Joske; I was seeing it now.
The sword was teaching Echelon how to fight, and I knew how the sword preferred to fight. I could outthink a weapon.
What had begun as an equal contest quickly became one-sided. Echelon’s parries were slow, his feints obvious, his attempts at ripostes clumsy; the sword was giving him a crash course, and like anyone prone to learning on the fly he was prone to mistakes. I drove him back with one cut, two; a few brief clashes and I could see the path to disarming him, cleaving his skinny forearm from his body and scoring the finishing cut—
—#####! Another mental blast knocked me off guard, sending me reeling back a step or two. That mask was the last advantage that Echelon had. His greatest weapon, his element, had been nabbed right from his arsenal, and if I could—
My sword’s point dropped to the ground while I tried recovering, but the pain in my skull was too much to even lift my blade back up. My revolver relied on muscle memory, if I could get the sword up—
I yelled out in pain as I felt my skull begin to crack.
With the third mental blast, Dorian’s guard was broken. Echelon had the opening he wanted: his left hand shot out and flared with Dark Magnetism, and Dorian was thrown sprawling to the floor among the slotted Crystals. Angelus’ sword, knocked from his already-loosened grip, clattered to a stop nearby.
Echelon advanced, aiming the tip of the flamberge at the prone Fe-Toa.
“I could gut you now,” he hissed, sickly green eyes burning with malice. “Clean and quick, just like Joske. But for you, Dorian Shaddix — “
He lowered the flamberge, instead raising his left hand once more.
“ — I’m going to make this excruciating.”
Shadows erupted across Dorian’s body. His clothes, his bones, his flesh itself: all were enslaved to that dark force, twisted against themselves, pummelled this way and that, and crushed against the Vault’s unforgiving crystal floor. His screams of pain echoed off the walls.
Echelon’s face was twisted into a grimace of intense, hateful focus as he unleashed wave after wave of his power, each wracking Dorian’s body more violently than the last. Muscles tore. Bones fractured. The old wound on his abdomen ruptured; blood trickled, then spilled, then began to pool in his lap.
Dorian’s screams grew quieter, more strangled. His eyes began to glaze.
Ow ow ow ow OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW
Tweaked tweaked RIPPED RIPPED TORN TORN TEARING TEARING ##### ##### ##### #####
CAN’T FIGHT IT CAN’T FIGHT IT TOO MUCH SWORD? SWORD?
HE CAN’T WIN. HE CAN’T WIN. HE CAN’T WIN.
Ragged breaths breaking through between screams. Bugs eating the corner of my eyes, leaving black spots in peripherals. Thoughts of Joske. Cael. Utu. Tuara. Joske. Cael. Tuara. Tuara. Vault. I was still in the Vault. I couldn't forget. I couldn't give up. I had to stand.
Don’t let yourself die you have to remember don’t let yourself die you have to remember don’t let yourself die you have to remember don’t let yourself die don’t, don’t don't don’t....
Echelon’s hand was raising to the quartz ceiling of the Vault, all the power of Makuta contained in his body. Killing blow. Time for last thoughts.
I wish I’d kissed Tuara again. I wish I’d kissed Cael again.
I should have stayed with my friends.
“You’re a delightful audience, ladies and gentlemen, I thank you. And I hope this doesn’t come as a severe shock, but I’m through.”
“Ohh yeah! Oh, it’s boozin’ time!”
-- One more!
“One more what? I’m going to the bar! I’ll be saying that to the, the waiter in a minute! One more, please!”
Karzahni was trippy.
I wasn’t burning. There were no stalagmites impaling me from mouth to groin, no chains binding me to a legion of sinners awaiting final decimation by Makuta or Mata Nui, not even really a sense of torment. I wouldn’t have minded making some wailing lamentations. This just sucked. It was dusty and arid, not particularly humid, but stiff; the sun’s beating was relentless, its rays pulsed when you looked directly into its majesty, and the only movement in the air was an occasional breeze that brought more sand than relief.
Karz wasn’t Karz. Karz was just Po-Wahi.
“Well, that makes sense,” I grumbled, moving to loosen the hot pink scarf. If divine intervention wouldn’t bring any relief, I would muster some myself --
-- but the scarf wouldn’t budge.
The Fusas seemed to like that. They made amused noises that sound like Tuara’s laughter.
Only now did I see them; they numbered in the dozens, as tall as houses, genial creatures that paid me no mind as they flipped and cavorted around their giant enclosure. Only now did I realize that I was enclosed with them, slumped against an oversized, worn wooden gate as I had been slumped against the Vault. I knew this place, too.
I’d met Joske here. He changed my life, even though in my arrogance I thought I’d been changing his. Or maybe I had.
“...Joske?” I called out weakly, trying not to inhale a mouthful of that stupid sand in exchange for that hopeful word.
“Jokesy?” A voice called back, sounding far away and hard to make out. It seemed to come from everywhere at once, like it was piggybacking on every grain of sand in the air. “Boy oh boy, can I do jokesy. How’s this one: what do you get when you cross a Bula berry with a Madu fruit? A burst of energy!”
“...I’m in #####.”
Out between the legs of one of the closer Fusa, a figure suddenly materialized. Dark, indistinct, all mysterious-looking in its wide-brimmed hat. Even with all the dust in the air, I could pick out the silhouette of a stalk of grain sticking out between the figure’s teeth. Odd, the details you’ll notice when you can’t for the life of you realize quite where you’ve seen this person before--
“I’m in the last circle of #####.”
“Yyyyyep,” Grokk replied, chewing on his cud like a farmer. “Welcome to my party, prettyboy.”
“That’s not even funny," I insisted, inching myself up the post in an attempt to stand. I blinked, confused, when I realized that I didn’t have to bother; there was no pain, there was no blood threatening to come spewing out of me like the punctured canteen I was, there wasn’t even a scar. That sword always left scars. I stood up fully once I realized there wouldn’t be consequences for doing so, pushing myself off the gate with a foot casually--
--and eating ##### just as quickly. The act of standing was easy enough, but when I moved forward it felt like something had removed all the bones in my legs, and I was stuck walking on lean sticks of jelly. I rolled onto my back and looked up at the sun angrily, searching the cosmos for answers, and instead of them I only saw the faintest outline of a golden Kakama, a mask that the sun wore with mocking, attractive ease. I knew what it meant.
Joske, you prick.
I’d have to sit through this one.
“You get a burst of energy from a Bula or a Madu,” I pouted up to the heavens. “You don’t need to cross them.”
“But when you need extra, let’s say, ballistic force to jumpstart your heart,” Grokk mused, dipping over me and shading my face, “Maybe that Madu pop-rock-factor could go a long way.”
Close up, I could see the details of his face. Unfortunately, Grokk looked just as I remembered. Swirling tattoo over one eye; enough gold teeth to open a bank with; cruel eyes veneered in mischief; and, of course, a smile as wide and provocative as a four-lane market road. The only difference I picked out was that he now wore an absolutely enormous hat-- looked to be about 20 gallons.
Before I could say “howdy,” Grokk had lifted me up by the armpits, and held me aloft like a rag doll. His scarred hands stole all the strength out of my body, so the jello feeling went from head to foot. I dangled helplessly, my aggravation growing the more I looked on his stupid, stupid face.
“You’re supposed to be dead,” I managed to snarl through limp lips.
“We have that in common,” Grokk answered, the veneer on his eyes shifting for just a moment. He looked up at the sky, flashing the hazy blue a humorless smile. “But somebody just won’t let me.”
“What, sun-Joske?” I mean, why not.
“Worse,” Grokk said. “Way-hay-hay worse. This punk has a ‘sense of humor.’”
“Sense of humor. Maybe just no sense of fashion.”
I fought the urge to smile at him. I would have kneed him in the chest if my legs felt capable of anything beyond being smeared on toast, or wrapped around a dock to keep a rowboat from drifting off, but it felt good to think that there was something out there that was keeping Grokk from drifting off into an eternal siesta. Karmically good, sure. But good good, too. He wasn’t a peaceful person.
And it meant that I hadn’t technically killed him.
I hated the idea of being held up for the duration of our conversation, but I wasn’t going to say anything; it beat being dropped onto the ground again, which--
He dropped me onto the ground.
Were my own thoughts not even safe?
“Nnnope,” Grokk grinned, spitting out his piece of grass.
Why are there so many Fusa here? Did they kick out your teeth as a little Skakdi or something--
“Agh,” Grokk rolled his eyes, holding his temples exaggeratedly. “It would be easier if you talked. The inside of your head has a real hollow echo, and smells like perfume in there. You been using perfume, Dorable?”
“No. So, yeah, what’s with the Fusa? I don’t remember the last time I even saw one in the wild. They must be your thing, right?” I looked at the creatures that had surrounded us, and the more I looked the more they put me on edge. A Fusa wasn’t a threatening creature by nature, just a harmless little marsupial with endless bursts of energy--
“Heh,” Grokk snickered.
##### off. Anyway, Matoran even made little toys of them to flip around the house. My dad had stepped on more than one of them as a kid. He always hated them, but for some reason, he never stopped buying them for me.
“S’an entrepreneurial thing,” Grokk clarified. “Way I sees it, even the gods need playthings.” He shot another pointed look up at the sky.
“Ooh, you betcha,” Grokk answered, returning his gaze to me. “Lots of those up there. More n’ you’d expect... Enough gods for every one of us to get our own, even. It’s a crowded field. So I’ve had to really up my production of late. Lately, I’m swimmin’ in merchandise.”
“I never imagined you’d become an upstanding member of society. Businessman Grokk.”
He shot me a wink. “Who said nothin’ about upstanding?”
As if on cue, one of the Fusas started to— I don’t know quite how to say it— go haywire? It flipped once, then one of its legs tried to move while the other stayed put. The Fusa flipped again, this time flying sideways and crashing into one of its compatriots. The two kangaroos collapsed into a heap, making plaintive noises and trying to disentangle. Grokk made zero effort to help, which was—
“Classic me,” he finished. “Yep. Y’see, Dorable, death doesn’t change people. It gives them a chance to be themselves. Death couldn’t hold me in, no more than it can hold you. Death is temporary if the gods decree it. They don’t care ‘bout giving us any rest. They’re, y’know, just lookin’ for a kick.”
My first thought of Utu Kotore, the poor #####ing gigantic Mark Bearer, and how the last he’d ever seen of his only friend was his back, abandoning him again. I thought of Joske Nimil. I thought of all my dead friends, and how many of them had probably gotten talks like this. Joske must have. Gods seemed to favor Joske, in a way they -- didn’t? Did? -- seem to favor Grokk (too?) And here I was, the link that connected them. Joske, Grokk, Echelon, Heuani, Stannis, Cael, Utu, Tuara.
And Dor. The center of the spiderweb. There for everything, but always in the shadows, able to flit in and help or bounce out and shelter from any storm that blew my way.
I feel so tired.
“It doesn’t feel like that,” I protested. “It feels like my skin’s out of the game. I got what I’m after. I was--”
Was what? I had been doing something, something that felt important...something I’d thought I’d wrapped up. Echelon? Had I killed Echelon?
Echelon was killing me. That seemed ignoble. Everyone was going to think I was a ##### like Joske.
“--fine with it.”
That sounded wrong. No, it sounded right. It sounded like a blend. I knew what kind of barrel I was staring down when I marched into that Vault; all I wanted to do was burn out, the way Tuara always talked about, and leave Echelon’s corpse snapping, crackling, and popping beside me. That was just an optional objective.
“There are people who can do it better than me.”
“See but,” Grokk chided, adopting the posture and gestures of a stern teacher. “I don’t give a fusa’s flip about what you think you’re capable of, Mr. Dorian. So you’re the ‘center of a web,’ or whatever other tangled—tangled, hah, I’m good!—analogy you wanna weave—weave!—for me. I’ll letcha in on a little secret, Mr. Self-Involved: we’re all centers of our own webs. Life is all connections. You’re not special—”
“—But neither is nobody else. Well, except for me. I’m somethin’ special.”
“Figures he’d keep his inflated sense of self…”
“Don’t mumble, it’s disrespectful.” Grokk wagged his finger one last time, then relaxed out of his teacher bit. “Purposefully obtuse as always. Point is: you’re not special, you’re just dead. Well, close to death as we get, ‘round here. You’re where they sent me after I broke all the rules. You killed me, yeah yeah y’ain’t gotta apologize, I know you did whatcha had to… and I died. But then I didn’t like the, ah, boundaries that created. Flexed my Grokkie self a little too much for the man upstairs, and look at me now. Living in gods-forsaken wasteland in the realm of memory, one more set piece in somebody else’s story. I tellya Dor, I miss having my own story.”
For the first time, I thought I got a little honesty from Grokk. If/as he read this reaction in my thoughts—was he reading my reaction to his reaction?—he let it slide. The Skakdi slid onto the edge of a giant trough, some of the vim and vigor sliding out of him as he did so.
In that second, the honesty felt suffocating. My head felt like it was going to explode.
“I can’t take more of this #####.”
Grokk’s brief moment of cosmic relaxation vanished, and some of the strength returned to his posture like he was prepared for me to deck him with one of my noodle arms. Not that he didn’t deserve a good wiggly haymaker.
Instead, I stood up and crossed the pen to where the Fusa lay in their own noodly tangle of limbs. The Fusa who had crushed its poor buddy was still flailing and kicking desperately, trying to right its posture, and it kicked me in the stomach as I neared it. If we had been in the real Po-Wahi, I would have stumbled back, breath leaving my lungs in a sudden fwoosh while I sucked in an equivalent amount of dust and hashtagged words. Instead I got closer, and when the Fusa kicked again, I sidestepped to the right, got my hands on its sides, and hoisted it up, as Grokk had done for me.
The second Fusa stood on its own, with a bleat of gratitude. Then it started to flip again.
Dumb #####ing thing…
I turned back to look at Grokk and continue the conversation, and what I saw was a Skakdi different than I had ever known in life. Every detail was the same, everything from the teeth to the tattoo to the pulsing golden aura he liked to pretend was magnetism even though everyone in the world found it repellant instead. But not me.
All those years in Bad Company, even when we descended further and further into monstrosity, where the guilt started to creep into me and seemed to bounce off Grokk, it wasn’t Brykon’s pride that concerned me - I had never had that. It was Grokk’s pride that had counted. I didn’t see it on his face even until the moment he died.
For a second, finally, I thought I saw it dance along his eyes before wriggling up his tattoo like a serpent and escaping.
“Thought it would never shut up,” I exhaled, taking a step towards him. The Fusa that I had lifted in the first place watched me advance back to polite conversational distance before starting to do its circus routine again. I found more and more of the irritation I always felt around Grokk bleeding away from me, redirected to the Fusa.
“Why the ##### don’t they just stop?” I grumbled. “What did you do to them?”
“Not a thing, Dorbell,” Grokk shrugged. “They was like this when I got here.”
That statement hit me in the stomach harder than any kick, and I cocked my head slightly to look at the Skakdi. The motion sent the neon scarf sliding down my neck, but I was too busy looking at him to retrieve it.
“I am sorry you’re dead, Grokk.” I smiled, for the first time in my short, sweet second life as a farmhand. “But it was a #####load of money. You would’ve done it, too.”
“Eh,” Grokk answered nonchalantly. Typical of him to shy away from a broment. We watched the Fusa continue their erratic dances for an indeterminant amount of time. Grokk finally stood up and stretched.
“You leaving?” I asked, bewildered.
“Nah,” Grokk answered. “We’re goin’ for a stroll.”
Somehow, once we left the pen and started walking, the scene around us shifted. I found us back in the Vault. A bewildered look behind me, and all I saw was its stone wall. The Fusas had ceased to exist. Did Grokk exist? Did I exist?
“You think, therefore you are,” Grokk quipped. “You remember me, therefore I am.”
“Sick. Why’d you bring me here?”
“Have a look at what’s goin’ down, skinny. Whyd’ya think?”
I hugged my abs protectively.
“Like a twig.”
I turned my focus away from Grokk and deeper into the Vault. I looked markedly - Mark! Deep cut! --
“Awful,” Grokk interjected, shaking his head.
Hmmph. Speaking of deep cuts, I looked almost as rough-hewn as Grokk in the vision I saw before us. I was slumped against the wall as I had been against the post, looking thoroughly exsanguinated and barely able to keep a sword between my thick, unresponsive fingers. My revolver was useless by my side; the gun that had once kept all of Xa-Koro and the thoroughly psychotic cabal of the Mark Bearers under my thumb was now fully loaded and as dangerous as ever, but the dying lump of flesh beside it seemed incapable of striking fear into much of anything.
Echelon loomed over him, holding a beautiful crystalline blade over me as I had once brandished it over--
I felt an electric pang in my chest that would have sent me reeling if I hadn’t been possessed with the fortitude of an ethereal construct. As I once had over him. Heuani’s missive to me rang in my ears.
Do me a favor and cut his head off.
That #####er was going to cut my head off! Mine! With that ugly mug and that sorcerer’s scowl, he was going to cut my real head off my real shoulders - leaving us eternally deadlocked at one decapitation each, only mine was fake and his was real.
Death was one thing. But taking my head…
“You think you’re going to bait me,” I eked out through gritted teeth.
“Pssssh-ssh-shh,” Grokk chuckled. “Consider yourself baited, Dornament. Betcha he throws your head in the Antidermis. Or hits you with one-a them fancy disks. Betcha you grow legs from your neck or something gross.”
“Betcha he names it something cartoon-y and evil. Or something non-threatening and girly.”
By now, our little jaunt through purgatory had convinced me that I wasn’t #####ed yet. I’d heard tell of enough of Joske’s exploits, and I was quick enough on the draw, to recognize there was a message here, and why this messenger had been chosen. But I would be #####ed if I let Echelon turn my head into a spider.
“I get the point,” I grumbled. “Fine. I’ll go back and kill him. But whatever happens, it’s on you. And your stupid gods.”
“My gods? We don’t get to choose the gods,” Grokk sighed. “They only get to choose us. Do me a favor: forget all about me.”
I was caught off guard. “Sorry?”
“Forget about me. Entirely. Don’t even ‘member my name. I want out.”
“What about your crooked business? Who will keep selling the gods recall-worthy Fusa?”
“There’s always another crook,” Grokk said. “I’m bored, I want to investigate a different career. The career of being well and truly dead.”
I weighed that for a second - the idea of well and truly forgetting about a sin, instead of trying to atone for it. In another lifetime, it had felt so easy to do; now the idea of purging it from my memory, bleaching it beyond any recollection until my conscience shown white and clear, felt impossible. But I had done impossible things before, and the last time I had defied Grokk, it had sent him to a boring afterlife on the ranch. Maybe it could be done. Maybe it would be a favor. I watched Echelon, frozen in time, brandish the sword. Maybe I watched him even longer than I watched the Fusa.
“I ain’t ‘bout to dignify your childish vulgarities with a civilized response, Dorian. I’m a changed man now.”
Where are you gonna go, dummy? You’re in my head. You can’t walk away, you have to listen.
“All you can do is listen and listen, as long as I want,” I finished, turning to wink at him and grinning smugly.
I think he may have been surprised I finally had him one-upped.
“What?” asked the unfamiliar Skakdi quietly, like even the four letters were something he was begrudging me. Grokk seemed so…
“I’ll always be your friend,” I promised, punching him in the shoulder with a fully functional arm. “Live with it.”
“Too late to live with it. Gotta die with it.”
That wasn’t any funnier than that dumb #####ng fruit joke, but I laughed anyway.
What was that?
He wasn't going to cut my head off at all. He was just going to pulverize me into a stain on the wall. That wouldn't have been as bad. But...
Still, I wouldn't have been super pumped about it.
There was no more pain; there was only relief. The blood came flowing from my mouth as my screams turned into quiet giggles; Echelon looked more surprised than he should’ve. Everyone knows I could find a way to laugh at anything.
“Hey. D. Bag.”
How much blood was on my clothes or the ground beneath me instead of where it belonged? There was no way of telling. I felt like I had been flayed down to my core, stripped bare of every bit of protection Echelon thought I had. But he had forgotten to take my mask - not the Calix, but the facetious smile-and-wave routine that found new and exciting ways to disappoint everybody alive.
I smiled, and waved.
Echelon’s sneer curdled, and he threw the final ripple of Dark Magnetism down onto my head at the same second that the Protosteel sword was tugged back into my gesturing fingers. The Dark Toa’s attack stopped cold, distorting the air between us for a second before disappearing, replaced only by the glow of the rune. He looked shocked for a second. The first bullet shocked him more.
The smile, the wave, and the gun. The three tools of any good merc. Surprise? Well, that too. But the surprise on Echelon’s face was far sweeter than the feeling of pulling a rabbit out of my hat for the umpteenth time in my life. When I watched his hand go from brandishing the power to rip a Toa apart to touching his torso gingerly, it seemed obvious to me he’d never been shot before.
Everyone should try it, honestly. It’s no different from having the wind knocked out of you by a punch - when you’re used to it. Echelon clearly wasn’t yet, but he would learn soon enough.
Enjoy paradise, Tuara. I'm building it on this #####er's bones.
Crack crack crack crack crack.
Six retorts as Dorian fanned the hammer. Six impacts, thudding across the torso.
Pain and shock washed through Echelon’s mind. Through it, in a strange disconnected clarity, he could feel precisely what had happened: where the bullets had struck, which organs they had punctured. He knew what they meant.
This time, there was no escape.
He drew a shuddering half-breath through lungs already beginning to flood.
His muscles slackened. The flamberge slipped from his grasp and began to fall.
The Dark Toa toppled backwards and thudded to the Vault floor. He could not move, only stare up at the ceiling high above, gasping for shallow breaths. He had fallen at the centre of the lock, with the key-slot beneath the small of his back; encircled by the glowing crystal orbs, he looked like the subject of some arcane ritual. His black robes, now with six holes punched through, began to glisten with wetness. A pool of blood, turned black by Antidermis, was spreading slowly out across the floor beneath him.
Echelon stared up at the ceiling, the capstone of quartz high above, in despair. The moment he had dreaded, the moment he had fought for so long to forestall, had arrived on the very day he had been sure he would escape it forever. There was nothing left: no more weapons, no more tricks, no way out. He was dying.
Footsteps sounded dimly in his ears. From somewhere, some last reserve now good for nothing else, he found the strength to move his head and look.
Dorian Shaddix had risen slowly, and started to trudge towards him.
Echelon felt like he was seeing the young Toa advance from some other perspective, from some vantage point very far away. Neither Toa, for his measure, had seemed quite so small before; Echelon watched Dorian bend down to pluck the flamberge from the ground, followed by something else; he sensed, rather than felt, the still Vault air on his maskless face. The blood from Dorian’s ruptured midriff was still flowing, but that in itself was not necessarily fatal, if he was taken to a healer quickly. If Echelon himself could find the same second wind, then perhaps...but no. Dorian had suggested the status quo - he would always live, and so would Echelon - and Echelon had ignored it.
How had killing Nimil been easier than killing Shaddix? Why had he been allowed to come so close, only to fall at the last hurdle? How had so many been destined to come so far, but the final step was left in the hands of this...this…
Echelon remembered when the boy had worn a scarf.
His eyes had gone slightly hazy with despair and the fate at hand, but he could see another Toa coming through the same back entrance that Dorian had used, and Echelon before him. Where was Zaktan? Had the coward fled so far already?
The newcomer’s voice was familiar, Echelon thought. He sounded both concerned and relieved at the same time, as though the scene before him was better than he’d feared but worse than he’d hoped.
“A lot of that red’s supposed to be on the inside, lad.”
“The pants? S’called ox-blood, old man, don’t start crying over me yet. Not shocked you know ##### about fashion trends,” he heard Dorian drawling.
The newcomer laughed, the short, stifled laugh of one laughing in spite of himself.
“I suppose I should’ve seen that coming. I’m just glad to find you in one piece.”
Echelon did know this third Toa’s voice. It was full of the ridiculous compassion with which one particular Toa was notably afflicted: a Toa who had appeared with tiresome regularity to frustrate Echelon’s plans — but rarely, the broken Dark Toa noted with the one iota of satisfaction he had left, managing to stop them.
Merror. It was Merror.
“You really did it, then...” Merror said. Echelon could hear weary amazement in his voice. He felt the Ta-Toa’s eyes on him. “After all these years...someone finally stopped him.”
Groaning was a waste of one of his last breaths, but Echelon found he could not bite it back. Bad enough that he had to die so close to his final reward, but to do it with Shaddix’s voice in his ears, and now this self-righteous failure looking on…
“Huh? What’s the matter, Echelon? You still scheming around in there? Hey...good. I’m glad. Because I want you to be awake for this.” Blood was trickling down from Dorian’s mouth as he hefted the sword; it was unfair, unfair that somehow this roach could not just be stamped out while so many of his betters lay dead. What had he ever offered the world in intellect or in deed, to justify keeping that smug smile on his face? “Coming down here...I was gonna take...your head. Heuani promised your head. But thinking about it...I don’t do things for Heuani. Or for Joske. You’re dying for me.”
The blood left Dorian’s sneer in a contemptuous arc of spit. Echelon supposed he was fortunate not to have been spat upon in the final seconds of his life.
“So let’s do this my way.”
Echelon did not feel fortunate.
Dorian Shaddix, slightly hunched from his wounds, nonetheless found the strength to aim a finger gun at Merror and wink. Merror returned it with a half-hearted smile, then looked down to meet Echelon’s gaze. There was something resembling sadness in the veteran Ta-Toa’s eyes: pity? Echelon returned his gaze with a look that made it clear he did not want it.
After that, the sword hovering above him commanded the Dark Toa’s full attention. It did not come down gently.
Echelon felt the flamberge slide through him and down into the lock beneath, and let out one last choking, ragged scream...
Nowhere sees somewhere. Nothing perceives things.
—r is openin—
—g. Yes. Ye—
—s! The life fl—
—ows and I—
The sword hissed when it descended, crystal through armor and then against stone; the flamberge slid perfectly through Echelon and into the notch on the Vault’s lock.
As if a rock had been dropped through the surface of the stale underground atmosphere, a heavy wave of air rippled out in all directions from the point where Dorian had inserted the sword. Then things began to change. The alchemy transpired so quickly that Dorian hardly registered it, save through the difference in the grip.
Still standing with its tip plunged through Echelon’s body and into the Vault floor, Heuani’s old flamberge started to change. It broadened, and its keen edges morphed from wavy to impeccably straight, like a wrinkled piece of cloth that was being ironed. The handle of the sword grew from a hand-and-a-half design to a two-handed grip with a brutally simple crossbar. Most astonishing of all, though, was that the very substance of the sword transmuted. The clear crystal of its blade seemed to melt away to instead reveal shiny, well-oiled protosteel.
Echelon groaned and gasped as the weapon thrust through him swelled, forcing his grievous wound to open further. Dorian was deaf to the pitiable noises of his enemy, for he was too enraptured by the magic happening before his very eyes: he had never seen this new sword before, but he could feel ancient power in its huge handle, a handle now too large for him.
This weapon, though Dorian and Merror did not know it, had most recently belonged to the Imperial Executioner Rayuke on the distant Kentoku Archipelago.
The charm stones embedded in the floor seemed to appreciate the taste of the new sword’s protosteel; they grew enthusiastically brighter, graduating from gentle blue towards bright white. Their luminance began to spread, like the firing neurons of a brain, to each of the thousands of letters etched into the Vault’s quartz wall. Eventually, all the characters around the room glowed with their own luminance.
The Vault, which had been dark and moody for so long, was now lit from all surfaces by harsh white light. To Dorian and Merror, it felt clinical inside the chamber, even sterile. The Vault seemed like it wanted to rid itself of disease, at any rate: with a terrific bang! Makuta’s old Antidermis vat which had hung from the wall fell to earth, the tar-like cords that had suspended it somehow dissolved by the lit letters. The vat shattered on impact, its black-green gas-fluid spilling dangerously forth— only to be vaporized, sputtering and bubbling, whenever it touched a white-lit sigil.
Dorian let go of the sword in shock as it started to move of its own accord. The broadsword’s two-handed grip twisted, and the blade with it; the concentric circles on the floor of the Vault turned like a great lock. Echelon howled with pain as the inertia of his fallen body resisted the irresistible torque of the blade; nevertheless, his prone body turned 90 degrees along with the sword.
The only area left unlit was the Vault’s door, that featureless pale stone slab which had beguiled and confused the Toa Maru from without and continued to guard its mysteries from within. But not even this portion of the room, stoic and sturdy as it was, could escape indelible change. Before the eyes of Dorian, Merror, and Echelon (who had been turned, fortunately, to have a better view of the door), the smooth stone face lost its composure. It crumbled—incredibly quickly—into dust-sized particles that seemed to be sucked… inward?
As more and more of the door disappeared, the origin of the suction became clear: behind the sheer stone wall was a vertical pond of swirling, multicolored energy. Its pattern was ever-shifting, flowing like a lazy whirlpool where colorful tendrils chased each other in an endless dance. It cast a magnificent, gentle glow over all that stood before it, somehow even outshining the white light all around. When the granules of the dissolving stone door met the surface of the rainbow pool, the fluid around them fizzed a little, returning to placidity once the particles had passed beyond its surface.
It was, unmistakably, the fabled portal Joske had long sought to open. Dorian and Merror—who had not known what to expect from the activation of the Vault’s device—wore looks of amazement and bemusement at the sight of this otherworldly gate. But Echelon, who was in-the-know, sported a sickly, ecstatic grin.
Echelon let loose a wet cackle; his eyes were newly alight with a spark of manic glee. His speech was ragged and slow, punctuated by retches and coughs as he heaved his words from ruined lungs. “You... fools… it… is done—”
“Quiet,” Dorian snarled belatedly, kicking Echelon in the ribs and eliciting an agonized wheeze. But his focus wasn’t on the Dark Toa. Dorian could not take his eyes off the swirling energies before him.
“What… what is this?” Merror asked, awestruck.
”I… I…” Echelon coughed, spitting black blood, “...will have... my reward..."
Echelon seemed unable to utter any more words; his mouth opened, his tongue flexed, but he was without air. In silence, all six eyes in the room fixed themselves on the awesome sight before them. Gradually, the door continued to atomize and crumble inward. The last of the Vault’s old stone was finally sucked into the multicolored pool, leaving it completely unobstructed for the first time in countless years. The second this occurred, things started to go wrong.
A gap rends nowhere. A gap only large enough for one half of nothing.
Following its agreement, the nothingness redivides itself.
I have kept my promise. Now, keep yours.
I will make you pay.
I will obliterate everything you love.
And, for now, I cannot stop you. But you cannot stop this.
Good riddance, brother.
For an instant, the rainbow currents of the portal flowed naturally. Then, all at once, they began to froth wildly again, as if they were consuming a second stone wall at ten times the previous rate. This time, however, nothing was passing into the portal.
Something, it turned out, was emerging.
Cold winds buffeted the chamber, sending technological items flying through the air. Merror was nearly brained by a flying Zamor launcher, but ducked just in time. The white letter-lights all around flickered, dimmed, died. The Vault grew dark; the Antidermis vat, which had lent the room a greenish source of illumination, had fallen and its contents dissipated. Only the rainbow glow of the portal, eerie and solitary, provided any visibility.
The air ionized, crackled, suddenly smelled of burnt ozone. The darkness grew darker. And a terrible, bodiless, sourceless, invisible, awful, malicious presence squeezed forth from the portal.
It filled the whole Vault. It filled the air in their lungs. It filled the whole world.
“Free,” the presence murmured.
Its voice, deep as the earth beneath Mangaia, rattled the bones in the bodies before it. It echoed off the hexagonal walls, filling the cathedral-like chamber and causing some of the Kanohi left in the Vault’s corner to shatter. The presence’s merest whisper petrified all three Toa, made them feel like their muscles had turned to loose sand.
“I am… free.” The walls on either side of the rainbow portal erupted with hairline fractures as the presence experimentally moved from one side to the other.
Echelon could not make a sound—he could barely keep his eyes open anymore—but, despite the surge of instinctual terror he felt, his self-satisfied smirk broadened. It was all he had hoped for, schemed for, dreamed for. At last, the power that could grant his great wish had come. He squirmed weakly on the blade of the broadsword, trying to draw attention to himself.
“Ah,” the presence rumbled, fixing its focus on Echelon. “Here is my servant.”
All the wounds in the Dark Toa’s body screamed in protest; something about merely being looked at by the presence increased his agony threefold. Dorian and Merror, meanwhile, were bound by primal fear to remain silent, motionless, helpless. The walls of the Vault splintered still more, as if insufficient to contain the enormous, evil thing that the portal had deposited there.
Echelon, unable to respond to his master and essentially only kept conscious by the fight-or-flight reflex that had gripped his body, wriggled and mouthed silently.
“You have played your part, however ineptly, to birth me once again into this world,” the presence mused, its voice causing a dozen pieces of technology behind the Toa to combust spontaneously. Dorian and Merror winced as littles splinters of metal dug into their backs. “For this,” the presence went on, “I am grateful.”
Echelon blinked rapidly. He was losing control over his body; his limbs would no longer answer him, but he felt a surge of relief—
“And yet,” the presence went on, quelling his hopes like an ocean quells a lit candle. “You have allowed my forces here to diminish, to dispel, to weaken. Because of your incompetence, I cannot yet return to this island with my full strength. For the inconvenience you have caused me, you deserve… punishment.”
The darkness surged into Echelon’s mind, strangling and suffocating what little consciousness he had left.
I would never have granted your wish, it laughed savagely. And then it snuffed Echelon out forever.
Life departed the Dark Toa’s form, leaving his broken body motionless, his eyes still open. Under any other circumstances, Dorian and Merror might have celebrated Echelon’s death. But these were hardly normal circumstances. The prone form of the once-great Dark Toa served only as a fresh example of the dire straits into which they had stumbled.
“You,” the presence growled at the two Toa. They were bound under its invisible gaze; they felt like they were being simultaneously boiled alive and flash-frozen. The Vault started to shake and crack, as if the wrath of the presence was becoming simply too much for the quartz walls to handle.
“I also owe you a debt for your part in my return,” the presence conceded. “I will not take your lives today.”
With that, a potent maelstrom howled to life. It picked up Dorian and Merror, as well as the scraps of ruined technology behind them, and started to spin around and around like a tornado. The Toa nearly fainted from the violent centripetal force, and strained to keep their eyes open as they watched the rainbow glow of the portal whip past, past, past their vision.
The presence boomed all around them. “Tell the world that I have returned. Tell the Toa Maru that they can find me— if they dare face me again. I will be ready for them.”
The quartz chamber of the Vault shattered at last, exploding outward into the enormous, dark chamber of Mangaia. The wicked presence, free from confining walls, swelled in magnitude and laughed. The gale-force column of air carrying Dorian and Merror deflected the worst of the Vault’s wreckage, sending it flying far out on all sides. The portal remained just where it had been, though, standing in midair within a newly-formed pile of rubble.
Within the cyclone, Merror could not dodge a second piece of technology, which knocked him out cold. Dorian did not last much longer; susceptible to his wounds and extraordinary dizziness, he passed out a moment later, his body becoming limp in midair. At great speed, the whirling tornado carried the two unconscious Toa up to the surface, up to the world above, where evening had just begun to fall.
Makuta was back.
Nowhere is nowhere, but nothing does not mind.
Four to go.